December 7, 2020 • Third Third Journal
Christmastime is filled with memories. At least it is for those of us in the third third of life, perhaps because we have lived long enough to have a whole bunch of holiday memories. When I smell Christmas trees, for example, I remember going to the tree lot with my parents, trying the find just the right tree for our home. Or when we gather as a family on Christmas morning, my mind is filled with reminiscences of past Christmases when my children were young and enraptured by the mysteries of Christmas morning. And so it goes with me throughout December. I expect you can relate. (The photo shows my children hiding behind the Christmas tree over 20 years ago. They don’t do that anymore.)
If you’re inclined to be at all nostalgic, Christmastime amps up this inclination. Hearing beloved carols, sniffing Christmas cookies, viewing brightly colored holiday lights, watching the wonder of children, all of these can transport you back in your personal history like some magical time machine. As you savor sweet Christmas memories, you may also feel a hint of sad longing, realizing that happy times from the past are really and necessarily past.
Besides giving you some moments of bittersweet joy, can your Christmas memories actually enrich your life today? Can they help you live in the present and the future with greater delight, even with deeper meaning? Is holiday nostalgia a gift to be opened? Or is it rather something to be avoided because you can get stuck in the past?
The Curious Case of Ebenezer Scrooge
As we seek an answer to the value of Christmas memories, let’s turn first to the curious case of Ebenezer Scrooge. I expect you’re familiar with his story, which premiered in Charles Dickens’s classic tale, A Christmas Carol, and has been retold in a profusion of Christmas movies and plays. I doubt I’m spoiling anything by reminding you that when Scrooge’s story began, he was “a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” It would be hard to imagine a more miserly and miserable man than Ebenezer Scrooge, who, among other things, hated Christmas, regarding it as nothing but a “humbug.”
But, after several ghostly visitations, Scrooge was transformed. On Christmas morning after his metamorphosis, he confessed to be “as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy.” Yet the new Scrooge wasn’t only delighted to say “Merry Christmas” to his neighbors rather than “Bah! Humbug.” He actually wanted to spend time with the family he had previously spurned. Relationships mattered to him more than they had in decades. Moreover, Scrooge had come to care deeply about others, expressing his concern with exceptional generosity to the poor, brand new fairness as a boss, and a passionate personal investment in the life of Tiny Tim. Of the man who once hated Christmas, “it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
What brought about such a miraculous change in Scrooge? To be sure, it was a result of supernatural intervention initiated by the ghost of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, and carried out by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. But what began the transformation of Scrooge wasn’t an enchanted zap from the Ghost of Christmas Past. Rather, that spirit helped Scrooge remember his own past. Scrooge became filled with Christmas memories from his pre-humbug life.
For example, the ghost transported Scrooge back to the place where he was a boy in boarding school. Immediately, he “was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten.” When the spirit showed Scrooge his boyhood self, left alone in his dismal school, Scrooge sobbed with newfound emotion. Yet, when he noticed what his childhood self had been reading, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” Scrooge cried out with enthusiastic laughter and tears.
Then, after gazing upon his youthful self, Scrooge showed the first evidence of a new heart for others:
“I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it’s too late now.” “What is the matter?” asked the Spirit. “Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.”
In fact, the former Scrooge had wanted to give that boy something, a smack with his ruler!
As the Ghost of Christmas Past continued to show Scrooge memories from his past, the cold, hard Scrooge became strangely warmed, softened by the power of his spirit-induced nostalgia. By the end of the first ghostly visit, Scrooge was well on his way to becoming a new man.
The Power of Nostalgia
This is all fine in Dickens’s make-believe world, but is there reason to believe that memories of the past could actually make a positive difference in present? Was Dickens engaging in fictional wishful thinking? Or was he in touch with something profoundly true about human nature?
In the mid-19th century, those who studied the nuances of memory did not share Dickens’s view of transformation through remembering the past. In fact, nostalgia was regarded as something unhealthy, something to be avoided at all costs. The first doctor to write about nostalgia was Johannes Hofer, who published a scholarly paper on the subject in 1688. He was, in fact, the one who coined the word “nostalgia,” combining two Greek words, nostos and algos, which meant “homecoming” and “pain.” Nostalgia, according to Hofer, was a physical condition that showed itself as debilitating homesickness. In the centuries after Hofer, nostalgia came to be viewed as a psychological disorder that kept a person stuck in the past rather than flourishing in the present.
Dickens didn’t see things that way, of course. As it turns out, his positive regard for nostalgia was prophetic. Beginning in the 1980s, inspired by therapists working with older adults in nursing homes, psychologists began to see the value of musing on memories of one’s past. But serious research into the power of nostalgia didn’t begin until a couple of decades later, when psychologists started to study nostalgia scientifically, looking at what actually happens when people are nostalgic. A group of scholars from the University of Southampton in the U.K. formed the Nostalgia Group to study the phenomena and curate the research of others.
These scholars found that nostalgia was not the negative thing previous pundits had supposed. Rather, it “confers psychological benefits. When engaging in nostalgic reflection, people report a stronger sense of belongingness, affiliation, or sociality; they convey higher continuity between their past and their present; they describe their lives as more meaningful; and they often indicate higher levels of self-esteem and positive mood” (from the Nostalgia Group website). The Southhampton scholars defined nostalgia as “a complex emotion that involves past-oriented cognition and a mixed affective signature.” Those waxing nostalgic can feel a combination of happy and sad emotions, though positive emotions are usually prevail. Nevertheless, most people experience nostalgia “with an overall sense of bittersweetness.”
I imagine you know exactly what they mean. As you ruminate on pleasant memories from your past, you feel both deep happiness and a kind of sad longing. A part of you aches to return to the past, yet you know that’s impossible. Your memories are indeed sweet in a way, but bitter as well.
The benefits of nostalgia turn out to be not just mental or emotional, but also physical. This was demonstrated in a striking study by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, described in her book Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. In 1981, Langer and her team hosted a group of older men with considerable physical and mental limitations at a secluded monastery in New Hampshire. After giving them a battery of physical and mental tests, Langer’s team brought the men into a world that looked, sounded, smelled, and felt just like 1959. The willing participants played along, acting as if the calendar had been set back 22 years. Their conversations, readings, music, food, and activities were all the sort of thing that was common in 1959.
What happened to the men after this experimental week was astounding. They did strikingly better on a variety of physical and mental tests, including joint flexibility, hearing, vision, memory, and IQ. When Langer showed objective observers before and after photos of the men, the observers agreed that the subjects looked much younger in the after photos.
I realize that what I’m describing here might seem about as real as the ghosts in A Christmas Carol. But, from what I’ve been able to glean from lots of contemporary research, it turns out that Dickens was actually more in touch with the positive power of nostalgia than were the doctors and scholars of his day, who thought of it as a kind of sickness. The science shows that people who engage in personal nostalgia receive a variety of benefits, and not only for themselves. A series of studies by scholars of the Nostalgia Group found that nostalgia “increases charitable intentions . . . and charitable behavior” largely by augmenting one’s capacity for empathy. (If you’d like more information on all of this nostalgia research, check out the Nostalgia Group website, or this New York Times article, or this TED-ed animation.)
How Christmas Memories Can Enrich Your Life
Having noted the example of Ebenezer Scrooge and contemporary research on nostalgia, I am ready to revisit the questions I asked earlier: Besides giving you some moments of bittersweet joy, can your Christmas memories actually enrich your life today? Can they help you to live in the present and the future with greater delight, even with deeper meaning? Is holiday nostalgia a gift to be opened? Or is it rather something to be avoided because you can get stuck in the past?
Even without help from the Ghost of Christmas Past, ruminating on memories from your own Christmas past can indeed enrich your life. You can enjoy the emotional and cognitive benefits in the present based on your nostalgia for the past. Often, reflecting on the past enables you to experience a deeper integration of self, a deeper sense of who you are and why you are alive.
Experts in nostalgia do warn us, however, of the danger of what they call “historical nostalgia.” Krystine Batcho observes, “But for all its benefits, nostalgia can also seduce us into retreating into a romanticized past. The desire to escape into the imagined, idealized world of a prior era – even one you weren’t alive for – represents a different, independent type of nostalgia called historical nostalgia.” It’s always possible for you to become so wrapped up in memories of a glorified past that you fail to live well in the present. But, in fact, this is not common among people who enjoy even regular visits to the memories of their past.
So, it appears that both Charles Dickens and contemporary psychologists agree. Memories do have the power to enrich your life today. Nostalgia at Christmastime isn’t only normal. It’s also potentially beneficial, as long as you don’t become mired in a romanticized past.
Theological Reflections on Christmas Nostalgia
How ought we to think about all of this from a Christian perspective? I want to suggest five brief implications.
First, if the research on nostalgia accurately represents what is true – namely, that nostalgia helps us live with greater meaning and joy – then ruminating on Christmas memories could surely be a blessing from God. God wants us to enjoy the good gifts he has given us throughout our lives.
Second, nostalgia doesn’t have to stop with reminiscence. It can be a pathway to gratitude. As you allow your mind to enjoy pleasant memories, you can pause to thank God for them and for the people and events they have brought to mind. I have led third third groups in experiences that combine nostalgia with gratitude, seeing just how powerful such experiences can be.
Third, though nostalgia generally includes pleasant memories, it can also bring to mind painful episodes from our past. When I reflect on my own Christmas memories, for example, most are sweet. But I do also recall some very difficult moments in my family of origin. Christmas has a way of exacerbating relational tensions. As I reflect on these with a measure of sadness, I am able now to sense God’s presence even in those hard times. I can also see how God used those struggles to help me grow to be more like Jesus. So, even in the painful memories there is a kind of redemption and bittersweetness.
Fourth, according to the research, nostalgia might very well motivate you to be more empathetic, which is never a bad trait, especially around the holidays. Additional empathy for family members can go a long way to promoting peace on earth. Plus, empathy for those who are suffering might spur you on to greater generosity, much like what happened with Ebenezer Scrooge. In this way, nostalgia isn’t just for you. It’s for those you’ll be motivated to serve this Christmas and beyond.
Fifth, there is much in Scripture that encourages us to remember the past. Usually these are memories of what God has done in the distant past, actions that we continue to experience in the present. In the Lord’s Supper, for example, we eat and drink “in remembrance” of Jesus, and in this way experience his transforming grace right now. But, in addition to recalling God’s saving actions in the past, it is also right for us to bring to mind God’s love and faithfulness in our own lives.
Remembering What Matters Most in this Strange Year
Because of COVID-19, I’m sure this will be a very strange Christmas for you, as it will be for me. Many of us will spend the holidays away from our family and friends as we seek to limit the spread of the coronavirus. For the first time in six decades, I will not be physically worshipping at church on Christmas Eve. It will feel sadly inadequate to join worship services virtually and to celebrate Christmas without hugging my loved ones, other than those living with me at home.
So, I expect that this will be a year in which many of us will be even more nostalgic than usual. Memories from the past will flood our minds and hearts. These will be bittersweet because they will be filled with joy yet so very far away. Nevertheless, we can allow our nostalgic musings to fill us with gratitude and to inspire us to love more truly in the time we have today.
My prayer for you and for me is that our personal memories will be colored by the most important Christmas memory of all, the memory of God coming to be among us in Jesus. Our God, the God of Heaven and Earth, knows that it’s like to be human. Our God understands joy and sorrow, celebration and lamentation. Thus, we can share our memories with Emmanuel, God with us, in the past, present, and future.
Devotions for Christmas: Reflections on the Incarnation of Christ
Christmas is about the birth of Christ and his coming into the world, taking on human flesh. In this season, we remember God becoming incarnate, embodied. An 8-part devotional guide for $6.99.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.